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The Law Enforcement Honor Guard carries out the special flag-folding ceremony during the Faith at Work community service held Sept. 11 at the Willmar Civic Center. (Tribune file photo by Ron Adams)

Year in Review: Top news stories of 2011 in Willmar, Minn., region

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While a number of stories played a part in shaping the region during 2011, the No. 1 news story of the year is the alleged murder of an Albertville man in rural Belgrade.

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Two rural Paynesville men are in the Kandiyohi County Jail in Willmar pending further court appearances/rullings.

On the political front, the state shutdown and its impact locally ranked No. 2 on the list. Following is a look at the stories the Tribune news staff voted into the Top 10 for 2011:

1. Hubers indicted on first-degree murder charges, shot man in rural Belgrade

Delbert Edwin Huber, 81, and Timothy John Huber, 45, of rural Paynesville, were indicted by a Kandiyohi County grand jury on Nov. 17 on first-degree premeditated murder charges, plus second-degree intentional and unintentional murder charges for their roles in Oct. 8 shooting death of Timothy Richard Larson, 43, of Albertville.

Delbert Huber is accused of shooting Larson with a 303 British Enfield rifle during a confrontation over the fact that Larson ordered the Hubers and their farm equipment off farm property owned by Larson's father. Larson was unarmed and was allegedly shot by Delbert Huber while Timothy Huber fed the cattle and chickens at Norman Larson's farm.

According to the complaints against them, the Hubers left Larson's body at the farm along 44th Street Northeast and did not report the killing to law enforcement until more than 12 hours later.

Both men have been held in the Kandiyohi County Jail in Willmar since the incident. Delbert Huber is held in $5 million bail and Timothy Huber is held on $1 million bail.

Delbert Huber has failed to secure the services of an attorney and an emergency conservator, Willmar attorney Thomas Jones, has been appointed to assist him by inventorying and preserving Huber's assets, providing for the retention of his defense counsel, and paying sums required for his defense. His next hearing is Jan. 23 before Judge Michael J. Thompson.

In a Dec. 7 order, District Judge Donald M. Spilseth ordered a mental competency evaluation for Timothy Huber. Huber's public defense attorneys have filed a notice that their client was either mentally ill or under duress. Spilseth ordered that Dr. Edmund Nadolny examine Huber, conduct a neuropsychology examination and report to the court Huber's mental condition. Because of the order, no future court dates are set for Timothy Huber.

-- Gretchen Schlosser

2. State shutdown July 1-20 impacts

local workers, campers and more

Much of state government shut down on July 1 after Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton failed to reach a budget agreement.

The shutdown lasted three weeks and had broad consequences for the area.

About 20,000 state employees were out of work during the shutdown. Many state offices around the state were closed, including workforce centers and driver's license exam offices.

Work stopped on state road projects. The shutdown also held up some local projects, because state inspectors were unavailable.

State parks, including Sibley State Park by New London, were closed to camping. The state lottery ceased operation.

Doctors, teachers, lawyers and others who work in professions licensed by the state faced delays in receiving their licenses.

The shutdown officially ended on July 21, when a new state budget was signed by the governor and state workers returned to their jobs.

-- Linda Vanderwerf

3. Fires devastate neighboring

towns of Atwater and Cosmos

Within days of each other, major fires in Cosmos and Atwater ripped out the heart of the two small towns.

On Feb. 24 fire destroyed the Cosmos Public Library and the approximately 9,000 items stored there, including an historic collection of scrapbooks with newspaper clippings.

On Feb. 28 fire roared through Atwater's main business district on Atlantic Avenue, destroying three buildings that had housed four businesses.

The remains of the brick builders were demolished, leaving a nearly block-long section of the street bare.The loss was estimated to be at least $2 million.

Only one of the four businesses has resumed operation.

Arson was the cause of the Atwater fire, although there's been no arrests made.

Cosmos got hit with another fire in July when Lietizau Taxidermy was destroyed. They've taken up temporary residency in an unused section of the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City elementary school.

-- Carolyn Lange

4. Weather extremes prove costly

A year of weather extremes proved costly to west central Minnesota.

A near-record snowpack and above normal spring and summer rains delayed planting and damaged crops, causing average yields in the region to drop by 30-bushels per acre for corn and 10-bushels per acre for soybeans.

High waters required aggressive flood protection efforts in communities along the Minnesota River. Two separate river crests in early April kept residents on edge in Montevideo and Granite Falls, but the crests were below the 1997 and 2001 record levels.

High waters also caused significant damage to lake shore properties throughout Kandiyohi County, and triggered severe sloughing on river and ditch banks throughout the region. By the end of July the waters of Green Lake had swelled to .8 foot of their all-time record.

The tumultuous weather dealt a severe blow to residents in a path cutting through Redwood, Yellow Medicine and Renville counties on July 1. Tornadoes and straight-line winds topping 100-miles-an hour ripped apart homes and buildings along a nearly three-mile path in Renville County. High winds toppled thousands of trees and hail pelted crops: Over 20,000 acres were damaged by the storm.

The storm was followed by a July heat wave blamed for some of the worst livestock losses experienced in the region ever.

And after that, it was if the spigot was turned off. The area is now experiencing drought conditions, with rainfall amounts from the August to November period five to seven inches below normal in many areas.

-- Tom Cherveny

5. Teen suicides force communities into action

Rocked by a handful of suicides this spring among teens and young adults in the New London and Spicer communities, volunteers responded with a united effort to increase mental health education and support.

More than 250 people attended a forum in April, organized in New London by a newly formed mental health task force. Task force members hope to develop long-term strategies for identifying those at risk of suicide, reducing the risk of suicide and supporting those who have lost someone to suicide.

The issue also galvanized volunteers who turned out 300-some strong in September for Kandiyohi County's first "Out of the Darkness" fund-raising walk on behalf of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Another outcome: the formation of Wings of Hope, a nonprofit volunteer initiative focused on outreach, healing and community relationships. One of the group's first public activities this summer was to plant flowers at the site of what will become a memorial garden in Spicer.

-- Anne Polta

6. Voters approve school levies

Voters in seven area school districts approved local levies for their schools in the Nov. 8 election.

For New London-Spicer, the new levy will bring $1.5 million additional funding to improve the district's technology capabilities.

For Willmar and five other districts -- Benson, Dawson-Boyd, BOLD, Redwood Valley and Montevideo -- operating levies approved by their voters will maintain current funding for day-to-day operations or increase it a bit. Most of the levies passed with strong majorities, despite organized opposition in Willmar and New London-Spicer.

Statewide a large majority of local levies were approved in November.

-- Linda Vanderwerf

7. City of Willmar experiences ups and downs, changes in 2011

Newly elected Mayor Frank Yanish gavels his first City Council meeting to order on Jan. 10 and says he intends to steer the city down a path that leads to consensus, cooperation and solutions.

City Council in January approves a 20 percent water rate increase requested by the Municipal Utilities Commission to address increasing expenses and government mandates, and the council approves a two-tier electrical rate increase of 7 percent in 2011 and 7 percent in 2012.

The Municipal Utilities reports in February that the performance of the utility's two wind turbines was very close to expectations during the first year of operation.

The City Council appoints Charlene Stevens, assistant county manager of Sedgwick County, Wichita, Kan., as Willmar city administrator, replacing long-time City Administrator Michael Schmit who retires at the end of July.

The Utilities Commission on Dec. 12 places General Manager Bruce Gomm on 30-day paid administrative leave while the commission investigates possible misconduct by Gomm and evaluates the current management and organizational structure.

-- David Little

8. 10th anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks observed

Along with the rest of the nation, local residents observed a somber occasion on Sept. 11: the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Nearly 3,000 people gathered at the Willmar Civic Center for a worship and memorial service organized by eight local congregations. Attendees showed their support for emergency responders by collectively donating enough money to equip area emergency services with two new utility task vehicles.

Several hundred more individuals filled the pews that evening for a second community event, an ecumenical prayer service hosted by the Church of St. Mary.

For others, the day was a private memorial marked by quiet reflection and the flying of the American flag.

-- Anne Polta

9. Zebra mussels: 'Keep Out'

Urged on by lakeshore associations, Kandiyohi County and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources continued campaigns to keep zebra mussels from infesting local waters. The discovery of zebra mussels less than an hour's drive away in popular recreation lakes in Douglas County has intensified the local effort.

The campaign included a summer-long, random inspection program at boat accesses to the county's most popular lakes. The Green Lake Property Association also worked with the DNR and the organizers for fishing tournaments to assure that visiting watercraft were inspected.

Much of the effort relies on individual responsibility to inspect watercraft, and by that account the Little Crow Ski Team set the standard. The team participated in the Midwest Regional Tournament on the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. When team members learned that there was the possibility that the river is infested by zebra mussels, they devoted a full day to disinfecting and cleaning all of their equipment, clothing, boats and other gear at the Donnerite facility in Willmar.

The Green Lake Property Owners Association also hosted Dr. Daniel Molloy, a scientist with the New York State Museum and developer of a biological agent that shows some promise in combatting the invasive species.

-- Tom Cherveny

10. Presidential turkeys raised

and trained by Willmar students

Two tom turkeys hatched and raised in Kandiyohi County were groomed and trained by Willmar FFA students to receive the official Thanksgiving turkey pardon by President Obama.

Besides feeding and cleaning the turkeys, the students spent time cuddling them and singing to them to get the birds accustomed to loud noise and people.

After making a round of educational appearances to metro-area schools, the two tom turkeys and the four students traveled to Washington, D.C. for the presidential pardon, along with representatives from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and Rick Huisenga, a Willmar Poultry executive who also serves as chairman of the National Turkey Federation.

After the televised pardoning, the two birds were taken to Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens where they'll live out their lives.

-- Carolyn Lange

What do you think was the top regional story of 2011?

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